Of the major units that comprise the world ocean, three—the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans—extend northward from Antarctica as huge "gulfs" separating the continents. The fourth, the Arctic Ocean, nearly landlocked by Eurasia and North America and nearly circular in outline, caps the north polar region. The Southern Ocean (also called the Antarctic Ocean) is now often considered a fifth, separate ocean, extending from the shores of Antarctica northward to about 60°S. The major oceans are further subdivided into smaller regions loosely called seas, gulfs, or bays. Some of these seas, such as the Sargasso Sea of the North Atlantic Ocean, are only vaguely defined, while others, such as the Mediterranean Sea or the Black Sea, are almost totally surrounded by land areas. Large and totally landlocked saltwater bodies such as the Caspian Sea are actually salt lakes.
The boundaries between oceans are usually designated by the continental land masses bordering them or by ridges in the ocean floor, which also serve as geographic boundaries. Where these features are absent (such as the ill-defined northern boundary of the Antarctic Ocean), the boundary is somewhat arbitrarily fixed by fluctuating zones of opposing currents that act as partial barriers to the mixing of waters between the two adjacent oceans.
The oceans are not uniformly distributed on the face of the earth. Continents and ocean basins tend to be antipodal, or diametrically opposed to one another, i.e., continents are found on the opposite side of the earth from ocean basins. For example, Antarctica is antipodal to the Arctic Ocean; Europe is opposed by the South Pacific Ocean. Furthermore, over two thirds of the earth's land area is found in the Northern Hemisphere, while the oceans comprise over 80% of the Southern Hemisphere.
The world ocean has an area of about 361 million sq km (139,400,000 sq mi), an average depth of about 3,730 m (12,230 ft), and a total volume of about 1,347,000,000 cu km (322,280,000 cu mi). Each cubic mile of seawater weighs approximately 4.7 billion tons and holds 166 million tons of dissolved solids. One of the most unique and intriguing aspects of ocean water is its salinity, or dissolved salt content. The measurement of salinity is essentially the determination of the amount of dissolved salts in 1 kg of ocean water and is expressed in parts per thousand (‰). Ocean salinities commonly range between 33 ‰ to 38 ‰, with an average of about 35 ‰. Thirty-five parts per thousand salinity is equivalent to 3.5% by weight. Six elements (chlorine, sodium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, and potassium) constitute over 90% of the total salts dissolved in the oceans. Pressure in the ocean waters increases with increasing depth due to the weight of the overlying water. The pressure increases at the rate of 1 atmosphere for every 10 m (33 ft) of depth (1 atm = 15 lb per sq in. or 1,016 dynes per sq cm). The average temperature of the oceans is 3.9°C (39°F).
It now appears that the waters making up the present oceans (and the gases that make up the present atmosphere) were not of cosmic origin, i.e., were not present in the primordial atmosphere. Instead, they were derived from the interior of the earth sometime in the first one or two billion years after the earth's formation. It is now also generally accepted that a new ocean crust has been forming more or less continuously for at least the past 200 million years through a process of volcanic activity along the midocean ridge system (see seafloor spreading), which consists of a series of underwater mountains. On the basis of present knowledge it seems highly probable that all ocean waters and atmospheric gases were gradually released by the separation of these volatile components from the silicate rocks of the crust and upper mantle through volcanic activity. (Molten lava is known to contain appreciable amounts of water and other volatiles that are released upon solidification.) With the passage of time, water released by volcanic activity gradually filled oceanic depressions.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.